House training your puppy

House training is the term we normally use for the process of training a puppy to go outside to urinate or defaecate (toilet) rather than toileting in the home. Once puppies have been house trained they should remain clean in the house throughout their life. If your dog has been house trained and then starts to mess in the house again you should consult your veterinary surgeon. A loss of toilet control can be caused by health problems and emotional disorders such as anxiety or fear.

Puppies will learn to toilet in a specific location by themselves but they need a little help to learn which location is convenient for us!

From about 3 weeks of age puppies try to walk away from the nest area to toilet. When they are about 5 weeks old they start to learn to prefer particular sites or surfaces, such as grass, for toileting. This preference is developed through association which becomes stronger as the puppy gets older and is firmly established by about 8 weeks.

If a puppy has not been exposed to grass in this time it may continue to prefer whatever surface has been available and it may need to be taught a different preference. This means that you have to provide a suitable location for your puppy to use as a toilet while preventing it from going to areas you don’t want it to use.

When a puppy toilets it experiences a sense of relief, which is a positive and rewarding experience. If this experience keeps occurring when the puppy is on a particular surface or in a particular location the puppy learns to associate the feeling with the site. As the puppy learns to control its need to toilet it will choose to wait until its preferred surface or location is available.

It is impossible to force a puppy not to toilet in a certain place – you must try to encourage it to go where you do want it to toilet. First you must anticipate when your puppy is likely to want to toilet (this is usually after waking and after meals), then make sure the puppy is in the location you want it to learn to use at that time. You should take your puppy to this location as soon as it shows signs that it needs to toilet. Through repetition your puppy will learn to associate the location you take it to with toileting.

When they are awake puppies need to toilet every 2 hours or so and usually they will show behavioural changes immediately beforehand. The signs to look out for are:

  • Restlessness
  • Sniffing the floor
  • Moving in circles
  • Moving towards a location where it has toileted before.

Luckily there are circumstances in which you can reliably anticipate that they need to go out. These are:

  • When they wake up
  • After or during periods of activity or excitement
  • Shortly after drinking
  • Within 20 minutes of eating.

Puppies can be taught that newspaper is an acceptable toileting surface. Once they are reliably using this surface in the house then you have to transfer the learning to a location and surface outside by moving the newspaper towards that location. Ultimately you will have to put newspaper outside when your puppy is there to encourage toileting on grass close to the paper. Once your puppy has learned to toilet on or near the paper you can gradually reduce the amount of paper needed. Eventually the learning will be transferred to the new surface and your puppy will be happy to toilet on grass outside.

If your puppy toilets in the house at any time the house training process will be delayed. You can reduce the risk of unwanted learning developing by putting your puppy in an indoor kennel, puppy play pen or similar when you are out. Your puppy may be reluctant to toilet in this confined area and you can put down a temporary surface here. Newspaper is the obvious choice for this as it cheap, absorbent and often used as a training aid for house training. It is better for your puppy to learn to toilet on this surface than on the floor.

Ideally you should not leave your puppy in the indoor kennel for longer than he can control his need to toilet. You should regard this facility as a way of managing the training and preventing unwanted or dangerous chewing when you can’t supervise. It is also important that your puppy has pleasant associations with this location. Your puppy should have a bed there and be quite happy to sleep in it.

At night you should go to bed as late as possible and get up as early as possible so that your puppy has the best chance of learning to wait until you take it out. Once a routine has been established you can gradually make the period of time your puppy is left overnight longer.

If you catch your puppy in the act of toileting in an inappropriate place, try to interrupt the behaviour by, e.g. clapping your hands. Then you should encourage the puppy to eliminate at the appropriate place by lifting him and taking him to it. If appropriate elimination occurs then give your puppy plenty of praise.

As puppies and dogs do not have a sense of right and wrong you should never punish a puppy for inappropriate toileting. Often owners are confused by what they interpret as signs of guilt in their puppy if it has toileted. In fact the puppy is not feeling guilty, it is anticipating the owner becoming threatening.

A major reason for avoiding any form of punishment in this circumstance is that it causes stress. Feelings of stress may reduce the puppy’s toilet control resulting in more toileting where you dont want it and house training will take longer.

Praising your puppy for toileting where you want it to can only be a good thing. However, it is important you get the timing right otherwise you will be rewarding whatever your puppy is doing at the time. Fortunately, the sense of relief associated with toileting is rewarding in its own right and if your puppy is toileting in an appropriate place that will encourage future toileting there.

What if my puppy has already messed in the house?

Firstly, blame yourself and promise that you will try and do better in your supervision, anticipation and timing!! Secondly, clean the area using an enzymatic cleaner made especially for the purpose. This will reduce the smell that may make it more likely that your puppy will go back to the same location if it is not removed. Avoid deodorising agents that reduce your ability to smell the odour rather than remove it as these contain ammonia. As ammonia is a component of urine its use may encourage your puppy to go to that location to toilet. Moving any faeces and newspaper with urine on to the location you want your puppy to use may help to establish the associations you want.